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date: 27 May 2017

Intercultural Friendships

Summary and Keywords

Following the devastation of World War II, policymakers and scholars worked to advance international partnerships and mutual understanding. In the 1940s and 1950s, international student exchange programs were launched to foster international good will; training programs for diplomats were created that focused on intercultural communication competence; and researchers turned their attention on how to optimize intergroup relations. Most prominently, Gordon Allport outlined principles of effective intergroup contact in the contact hypothesis. Scholarship based on the contact hypothesis later determined that the potential for friendship is not only a facilitating but also an essential factor for prejudice reduction and optimal intergroup contact. Focusing largely on the friendship experiences of international students studying abroad, research also identified numerous other benefits of intercultural-friendship formation, including stronger language skills, greater life satisfaction, lower levels of stress, and enhanced perceptions of the host country. Despite these benefits, the lack of friendship between sojourners and host nationals is a common finding in intercultural-friendship research and a concern for the many educational institutions worldwide that are attempting to internationalize, in part by attracting international students. Current research, therefore, often focuses on factors that influence intercultural-friendship formation and, increasingly, on measures for promoting intercultural friendship.

First among the factors affecting the development of intercultural friendships is cultural difference. Cultural similarity provides attributional confidence and reduces uncertainty; that is, interactants can more easily predict and explain behaviors in people who are similar to them. Highly dissimilar cultures often exhibit differences in communication patterns, value dimensions, and friendship styles that can impede relationship development, especially in the orientation and exploratory stages of social penetration, during which cultural complexities are most critical. Another prominent factor is the interactants’ motivation to form relationships across cultural lines. In one of the prime arenas for intercultural contact, international student exchange, for example, sojourners seeking cultural knowledge and personal growth generally have more interest in interaction and friendships with host nationals than students who are task oriented and focus on education for better career prospects after returning home. Similarly, host environment factors, such as host receptivity (ranging from welcoming attitudes to discrimination) influence the likelihood with which intercultural friendships are formed. Other factors affecting intercultural-friendship formation include communicative competence, intercultural sensitivity, and aspects of identity and personality (e.g., cultural versus personal identification, empathy, and open-mindedness). Among measures for promoting intercultural-friendship formation are infrastructures that facilitate proximity and frequency of contact, provide foreign language training, support experience abroad, and offer intercultural education and training to further intercultural competence and the appreciation of difference.

Keywords: intercultural friendship, intercultural relationships, intergroup communication, cross-cultural communication patterns, cross-cultural friendship patterns, international student integration, sojourner–host interaction


The term culture has numerous definitions (Baldwin, Faulkner, Hecht, & Lindsley, 2006), but a common tenet has been that culture is a set of attitudes, values, goals, and practices shared by a group. This group can be based on nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, age, religion, class, profession, and other variables; even a family can be seen as a culture. Although the term intercultural friendship is at times used with a similarly broad conceptualization of culture in mind, more often it refers only to friendships between interactants of different nationalities. Other types of friendship across cultural lines (especially those found domestically) are usually identified narrowly as interethnic, interracial, cross-gender, intergenerational, or otherwise diverse.

Definitions of friendship also vary widely. While the term friend in American English, for example, encompasses close friends as well as acquaintances, in other languages (e.g., German Freund), it is used only for close friendships (Gareis, 1995). Whereas a U.S. American may therefore assert having dozens of friends, respondents in other cultures are more likely to give a number in the single digits. For a more detailed definition, see the section on “Cultural Difference in Friendship Patterns.”


Intercultural friendships are likely as old as human cultures. Human tribes had neighbors, and world history is rife with migrations to distant lands. We can assume that friendships across cultural lines were formed at least occasionally.

Throughout recorded history, in literature, film, and the performing arts, “odd couples” and “unlikely friendships” have captured the imagination. Whether fictional or biographical, and whether in form of relationships that bridge a divide or as alliances for a common cause, friendships between dissimilar individuals make for interesting narratives. It was not until the 20th century, however, that opportunities for intercultural-friendship formation became commonplace and scholars in communication studies and other social sciences began to study such relationships.

Of pivotal importance was World War II. Reacting to the devastation of the war, policymakers and scholars wanted to advance international partnerships and mutual understanding. Peace efforts in the aftermath of war are customary, but several conditions made the middle of the 20th century especially auspicious for building bridges. Most prominently, rapid advancements in transportation and communication technology and concomitant globalization facilitated learning about foreign cultures, traveling and working abroad, and staying in contact.

Three other developments became instrumental for intercultural-friendship formation and research. First was the exponential growth of international higher education. Although individual youths have studied abroad since ancient times, it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that the first large-scale exchange programs were initiated. One of the most well known, the Fulbright Program in the United States, was proposed in September of 1945 by Senator J. William Fulbright and launched in 1946, to fund the “promotion of international good will through the exchange of students” (U.S. Department of State, n.d., para. 1). Young adults generally have few pressing family and work obligations and, particularly when they are away from home at college, have time to interact and are in proximity to diverse others. College therefore is a prime arena for forming friendships across cultural lines. As a result, much of the research on intercultural friendship is situated in the higher-education context.

Second, in 1946, the U.S. Department of State created the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). Responding to calls from Foreign Service personnel for more effective, practical preparation for overseas assignments, the FSI hired linguists and anthropologists (including George L. Trager, Edward T. Hall, and Ray. L. Birdwhistell) to create a training program for diplomats and technicians that combined a focus on spoken language and nonverbal communication (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1990). In the process, the concepts of kinesics (Birdwhistell, 1952), paralanguage (Trager, 1958), proxemics, and chronemics (Hall, 1959) were developed. In addition, culture came to be seen as communication (Hall, 1959). With anthropology centered on monocultural studies, and communication within these studies not being a central focus, the emerging interest in cross-cultural comparisons and intercultural interactions led to the establishment of a new field: intercultural communication. (It should be noted that the term cross-cultural communication generally refers to the comparison of communication patterns, whereas the term intercultural communication refers to the interaction between people of differing cultural background.) This set the stage for the exploration of interpersonal relations across cultures, including intercultural friendship.

Third, researchers started to study the optimization of intergroup relations. Most prominently, Gordon Allport (Allport, 1954) outlined principles of effective intergroup contact in the “contact hypothesis.” In an early study on the contact hypothesis, Selltiz and Cook (1962) found that not just any contact, but close and friendly personal relations between international students and hosts are important in changing international images. Later, it was determined that the “potential for friendship is an essential, not just facilitating, condition of optimal intergroup contact” (Pettigrew, 1997, p. 183). Furthermore, the reduction of prejudice through intercultural friendship transfers to outgroups, beyond the one of the friend per se (Pettigrew, 1997), and a positive attitude ensues indirectly in ingroup members who don’t have an outgroup friend themselves but only knowledge of another ingroup member’s intergroup friendship (Wright, Aron, McLaughlin-Volpe, & Ropp, 1997).

Although the groundwork for the study of intercultural relationships was laid in the 1940s and 1950s, research on friendship and culture in the 1960s and 1970s remained sporadic and anthropologically focused (e.g., Brain, 1976; Du Bois, 1974). Intercultural-friendship research did not gain momentum until the 1980s, when scholars from a variety of disciplines (most prominently communication studies, education, and psychology) started exploring the topic. Early studies were conducted by psychologists in the United Kingdom (e.g., Argyle & Henderson, 1984; Bochner, Hutnik, & Furnham, 1985; Goodwin, 1999); they have since been joined by communication scholars in the United States (e.g., Chen & Nakazawa, 2012; Collier, 2002; Gareis, 1995; Hotta & Ting-Toomey, 2013; Lee, 2006), and increasingly by scholars carrying out research in Australia (e.g., Kudo & Simkin, 2003) and New Zealand (e.g., Ward, Masgoret, & Gezentsvey, 2009). Most recently, notable work has also been published by biocultural anthropologist Daniel Hruschka (2010) and psychologist Roger Baumgarte (2013) in the United States.

The fact that intercultural-friendship research has largely originated in English-speaking countries reflects the larger reality of international student enrollment, on which much of the literature focuses. The United States and the United Kingdom rank consistently first and second in attracting the largest number of international students worldwide (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2013); and Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand are first, second, and third in international students as a percentage of the total student population in these countries (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2015). With international education constituting a significant source of income (e.g., in Australia, it is the third-largest export category) (Australian Government Department of Education and Training, 2015), some of the research conducted also serves to inform international education policy (e.g., Ward & Masgoret, 2004).

Benefits and Challenges of Intercultural Friendship

In addition to being a catalyst for prejudice reduction and positive intergroup attitudes (Pettigrew, 1997, 1998; Wright, Aron, McLaughlin-Volpe, & Ropp, 1997), intercultural friendship has numerous benefits for sojourners and host nationals. Thus, it has been found to be a central predictor of sojourn satisfaction for international students (Rohrlich & Martin, 1991), to reduce acculturative stress (Poyrazli, Kavanaugh, Baker, & Al-Timimi, 2004), alleviate intergroup anxiety (Page-Gould, Mendoza-Denton, & Tropp, 2008), and foster cross-cultural adjustment (Zhang & Goodson, 2011). Intercultural friendship is also linked to stronger language skills and improved academic performance (Ward & Masgoret, 2004) as well as better retention and graduation rates (Mamiseishvili, 2012). Overall, sojourners have a more positive mood (Furnham & Erdmann, 1995) and less homesickness (Hendrickson, Rosen, & Aune, 2011). Intercultural contact also enriches the experience of host nationals by facilitating an international outlook through the increase in intercultural knowledge and acceptance (Todd & Nesdale, 1997).

Unfortunately, one of the most frequent complaints of international students throughout decades of research has been the lack of meaningful contact with host nationals (Gareis, Merkin, & Goldman, 2011; Kudo & Simkin, 2003). The percentage of students who have no host-national friends range from 35% in a study in New Zealand (Ward & Masgoret, 2004) and 38% in a study in the United States (Gareis, 2012a), to 56% in a study conducted in London (Furnham & Alibhai, 1985), almost three quarters in a study in Australia (Nesdale, Simkin, Sang, Burke, & Fraser, 1995), and 83% in a study in Oxford (Bochner et al., 1985). Frequently, it is East Asian students who have the fewest host-national friends. In a study in the United States, Gareis (2012b) found that 52% of East Asians had no American friends, compared to 16% of students from Northern and Central Europe and 10% of international students from other Anglophone countries. The situation appears to be the same for male and female sojourners (Gareis et al., 2011; Owie, 1982), and unfortunately, it doesn’t always improve over time. Some students feel ongoing isolation (Marginson, Nyland, Sawir, & Forbes-Mewett, 2010) and don’t succeed in making host-national friends even after some years abroad (Gareis et al., 2011). This is a concern for the many educational institutions worldwide that are attempting to internationalize, in part by attracting international students. Current research, therefore, often focuses on factors that influence intercultural-friendship formation and increasingly also on effective measures for promoting intercultural friendship.


Cultural Difference in Communication Patterns

According to the similarity-attraction effect (Byrne, 1969), people tend to form relationships on the basis of similarity, including similarity in values, interests, age, gender, race, educational level, and religion. The tendency is especially pronounced in cultures with high self-esteem and relational mobility (Heine, Foster, & Spina, 2009). In cultures, such as Japan, where relationships are generally formed within enduring ingroups, similar individual attributes play a lesser role.

Additionally, when we interact with people from our own culture, their behaviors are largely consistent with our expectations and therefore easy to predict. Cultural similarity thus gives attributional confidence. When we meet culturally dissimilar people, however, our expectations (e.g., of language and nonverbal behavior) may not be fulfilled—a process described in the expectancy violation theory (Burgoon, 1978; Burgoon & Ebesu, 2005). The extent of the violation depends on the degree of difference between the cultures at hand. While some cultures are relatively similar in aspects, such as communication patterns, value orientations, and customs (e.g., the United States and Canada), others differ markedly (e.g., the United States and China). The anxiety and uncertainty frequently accompanying interactions with dissimilar strangers can be alleviated by eliciting and providing self-disclosure. In communication theory, these processes find expression in the uncertainty reduction theory (Berger & Calabrese, 1975) and in the anxiety uncertainty management theory (Gudykunst, 1985). Additionally, the social penetration theory explains that self-disclosure allows interactants to move from the orientation and exploratory stages of relationship development, when cultural differences are most salient, to the affective and stable stages when relationships have a personalized focus (Altman & Taylor, 1973) and cultural dissimilarities retreat into the background (Gudykunst, Nishida, & Chua, 1987). Once interactants have formed a friendship, a relational identity also emerges. While cultural difference may be less salient at this stage, it will remain important for the interactants to balance their own cultural identities with this new relational identity (Collier, 2002; Lee, 2006).

Of special interest in intercultural-friendship formation are cultural differences that have direct impact on the early stages of social penetration. Foremost, these are differences in communication and friendship patterns. Much of the cross-cultural literature on communication patterns focuses on the difference between collectivism in the East and individualism in the West. In highly collectivistic cultures, the social relationships into which one is born are also the source of one’s friendships (Hofstede, 2001). As a result, there is less need for the friendship initiation skills that are required in individualistic cultures (including small talk). In addition, communication in the collectivistic cultures of Asia is high context (i.e., more implicit and less verbal than the low-context communication common in individualistic cultures) (Hall, 1976). East Asians make up the largest contingent of international students in individualistic Anglophone countries worldwide but reportedly have the fewest host-national friends. Some of the difficulty in establishing relationships with host nationals derives from the limited importance of communication initiation skills and verbal expressiveness in their home cultures (Trice, 2007).

The lower levels of verbality in East Asia also affect self-disclosure in friendships (Chen & Nakazawa, 2009). In addition, self-disclosure in East Asia is regulated due to the importance of saving face (Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey, 1988; Shigemasu & Ikeda, 2006). Barnlund (1989), for example, found that both rate and amount of self-disclosure in Japan are more modest than in the United States. Likewise, Hastings (2000) determined that friendships in India are enacted through self-suppression (disclosure avoidance). This is in contrast to the United States, where they are enacted through self-expression. (American extensive talk and the direct expression of viewpoints were perceived unfavorably by the Indian respondents in Hastings’ study.) In a somewhat related vein, Goodwin and Lee (1994) report a greater number of taboo topics in conversations of Chinese versus British students. The tendency toward revealing interpersonal exchanges common in the West is avoided in the East. Similarly, nonverbal expressions of intimacy are more subdued in East Asia (Nishida, 1996). Conversational constraints theory suggests that individualists are concerned with clarity, whereas collectivists are concerned with others’ feelings and want to minimize imposition (Kim, 2005).

Cultures also differ in the expression of support. For instance, while Americans use verbal and nonverbal expressions of appreciation evenly, Chinese favor nonverbal expression (Bello, Brandau-Brown, Zhang, & Ragsdale, 2011). Likewise, scholarship comparing love expression between the United States and other cultures has shown that verbal expression of affection, including toward friends, is more common in the United States than elsewhere (Gareis & Wilkins, 2011; Wilkins & Gareis, 2006).

Cultural degrees of expressiveness also find an explanation in Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner’s (2012) emotionality versus neutrality orientation. In affective cultures (e.g., Kuwait, Egypt, Spain), people display emotions freely and outwardly; in neutral cultures (e.g., Ethiopia, Japan, Poland), emotion expression is controlled. It should be noted that expressiveness is not only linked to culture but also to gender. The traditional image in the United States, for example, is of females spending time with friends in intimate conversation whereas males prefer activities, such as sports (Tannen, 1990). In some cultures, gender differences mirror this image: Barry (2003) reports that East Asian women are less guarded in self-disclosure than men; Santilli and Miller (2011) found that Kenyan females use more nonverbal immediacy than males; and Morse (1983) determined that women in Brazil expect more emotional involvement in friendships than men. Some cultures, however, show no gender differences concerning friendship-related communication. For example, Berman, Murphy-Berman, and Pachauri (1988) found no difference between women and men in India in overall disclosure, activities, and how they loved their friends.

Cultural Difference in Friendship Patterns

Cultures differ not only in communication patterns facilitating friendship formation, they also differ in the ways friendship is conceptualized and practiced. Although definitions of close friendship often include similar characteristics (frequently mentioned are mutual support, trust, acceptance, approval, common interests, time spent together, and a wish for the friend’s happiness) (Argyle & Henderson, 1984; Lee, 2006), the list is not universal. Hruschka (2010), for example, compared the friendship patterns described in the 60 cultures of the anthropological Probability Sample File (PSF) (a subsample of the Human Relations Area Files database of the world’s 396 best-documented cultures) and found only three universal friendship elements: mutual aid based on need, positive affect, and gift giving.

Hruschka (2010) also found five cases of highly collective cultures (e.g., the Kogi farmers of Colombia), where exclusive friendships are strongly discouraged. In these cultures, friendships are perceived as a threat to the larger community due to their potential of causing a divide and conflicting loyalties (Coser, 1974). Of note is that friendships had to be explicitly discouraged, suggesting that in the absence of prohibitions and penalties, friendships do occur naturally. In fact, even in the five cultures under question, friendships arise, albeit rarely and secretly. It is therefore likely that the phenomenon of friendship itself is a universal or near-universal aspect of human cultures.

As to culture-specific variations in friendship characteristics, most prominently, cultures differ in what kind of support is provided. Some cultures focus on emotional support (talking, companionship, affection) whereas others place more importance on material support. For example, a comparison of mutual help between friends in Finland and Russia showed that, while respondents in both cultures valued emotional support, Russians mentioned favors and material aid more frequently (Lonkila, 1997). Similar patterns have been found in the United States versus Ghana (Adams & Plaut, 2003) and in Canada versus China (Li, 2003). An explanation may be the greater economic security of highly developed nations and the resulting lesser need for material support from friends.

As with communication patterns, the value orientations of individualism versus collectivism are also associated with variations in friendship patterns. Individualism is marked by independence, self-orientation, and low levels of obligation; collectivism, by contrast, emphasizes interdependence, other-orientation, and high levels of obligation (Hofstede, 2001). In individualistic cultures, such as the United States, “ties between individuals are loose” (Hofstede, 2001, p. 225), which often causes frustration among of sojourners from contrast cultures. (For more information, see the section on U.S. American Friendship Patterns.) Cultivating close relationships in collectivistic cultures, such as China, comes with significant obligations. Gates (1987) reports that friends there can make very strong claims on resources, time, and loyalty; and Butterfield (1982) recounts the case of Western sojourners who were overwhelmed and felt uneasy about the “constant gift giving and obligations” (p. 47).

Another difference in value orientations relevant for friendships is the universalism versus particularism dimension. A universalist would rather uphold the law than protect a friend; a particularist, on the other hand, would be willing to violate standard norms if a friend’s well-being depended on it. In the passenger’s dilemma, Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (2012) posed a scenario where respondents are to imagine being a passenger in a car driven by a friend who, due to excessive speed, causes an accident and injures a pedestrian. In the United States (on the universalist side of the spectrum), 93% of respondents said they would testify against their close friend. By comparison, in South Korea (on the particularist side), only 37% said they would testify that their close friend was speeding. Hruschka (2010) argues that in cultures where life is relatively secure (e.g., Switzerland), people tend towards obeying universal rules rather than breaking them to protect their friends.

Cultures also differ in the role that friendship plays in people’s lives. Whereas in the majority of cultures, friendships are voluntary relationships, in some cultures they are institutionalized. For example, among the Bangwa in Cameroon, friendships are arranged and ritualistic, with friends fulfilling responsibilities throughout life (Brain, 1976). Comparable relationships in the West would be those between godfathers and -mothers and their charges.

Case: U.S. American Friendship Patterns

With the United States being the most popular destination country for international students worldwide (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2013), American friendship patterns have received significant attention. Studies routinely report that American friendships are perceived as unique and that sojourners have conflicting perceptions of them: On one hand, Americans are seen as friendly and fun-loving, with contact being easy to establish; on the other hand, American friendships are criticized as superficial, non-committal, and short-lived (e.g., Bellah, Madson, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985; Roland, 1986; Trice & Elliott, 1993). Orientation handbooks for international students and other visitors to the United States, in fact, often warn visitors that U.S. friendships are less intense and enduring than those elsewhere (e.g., Althen & Bennett, 2011; Stewart & Bennett, 2005).

It comes as no surprise then, that more than half of international students in the United States are not or only somewhat satisfied with their number or American friends and the quality of these friendships (Gareis, 2012a; Gareis et al., 2011). The latter is the case even for students (e.g., from Northern European countries) who generally don’t find it difficult to form friendships in the United States. In a study by Gareis (1995), for example, German students had relatively large numbers of American friends, but some still expressed disappointment with the depth of these friendships and commitment of their friends. Only students with low intimacy needs and a penchant for activities expressed satisfaction with both number and quality of their American friendships.

The frustrations of international students are sometimes based on misunderstandings. For one, the category width of the word friend is broader in American English than in other languages. When someone is considered a friend in American English, he or she may only qualify as an acquaintance elsewhere (Fish, 2010). In addition, misunderstandings derive from cultural differences concerning interactions in the public versus private realm. Lewin (1948), who compared the United States and Germany, found that the United States featured a significantly larger public realm. That is, interactions that, elsewhere, are situated within interactants’ private realm and are interpreted as signs of budding friendships (e.g., friendliness, first-name basis, a hug, an invitation to one’s home) are still considered public in the United States. Sojourners encountering these interactions often mistakenly think a friendship has been made, when they have not yet come close to the American counterpart’s private core. Du Bois (1956) goes further and calls into question the existence of the kind of private core expected in close relationships in some other cultures. She explains that U.S. friendships are high in spread and trust but low in obligation and duration. She goes on to caution Americans about entering relationships with persons from high‑obligation and high‑duration cultures because persons from such cultures frequently misinterpret American openness and friendliness as a promise of closer involvement and are disappointed when this promise is not realized.

Lewin’s (1948) and Du Bois’ (1956) findings are echoed by reports reflecting on friendship within the United States. According to linguistic anthropologist Basso (1979), for example, Western Apache liken Anglo friendships to air because they lack longevity and mutual confidence. Likewise, sociologist Bellah and colleagues assert that Americans favor superficial friendships whose primary function is the enjoyment of one another’s’ company and not much else (Bellah et al., 1985). In addition, the General Social Survey (GSS), one of the longest-running surveys of social, cultural, and political issues in the United States, shows that, in 2004, one in four Americans lacked a confidant and that the number of Americans without a confidant has increased over time (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Brashears, 2006). The GSS also shows, however, that, in 2002, more than 95 % of Americans reported having at least one close friend (National Opinion Research Center, n.d.). The two findings combined prove that, for some Americans, talking about personal matters is not necessarily part of friendship. This phenomenon may be part of the reason why some sojourners’ friendship expectations are not met. The comment made by an East Asian student, that she and her American friend “don’t really talk something deeply in the heart,” [sic] reflects the ensuing disappointment (Gareis, 2012a, p. 319).

The origins of American friendship patterns likely lie in U.S. history and ideology. Based on the beliefs of early Calvinist settlers in each individual’s direct connection to God, and in prosperity as evidence of God’s grace, the U.S. national identity formed around the core values of liberty, individualism, and hard work (Ditlmann, Purdie-Vaughns, & Eibach, 2011; Weber, 1958; Zafirovski, 2009). As a nation of immigrants, Americans also have a history of migration and the breaking of ties with family and friends. Furthermore, capitalism prizes a mobile work force, and relationships are often dissolved in the process of moving for the advancement of one’s career. One of the first references to friendship in the context of these values stems from Alexis de Tocqueville (1840), who wrote that individualism as well as restlessness and competitiveness result in the weakening of communal bonds in the United States. Likewise, Bellah and his colleagues (Bellah et al., 1985) explain that Americans resist being too strongly attached since obligations and entanglements can infringe on one’s personal freedoms and on the preoccupation with making a good living. Whereas in China, for example, dependence is a positive quality and obligations are not seen as burdens, the American emphasis on individualism produces ambivalence about dependency and leads to lower levels of commitment (Lin & Rusbult, 1995).

Although sojourners often frame American friendship patterns in negative terms (as lack of depth, commitment, and longevity), they can also be seen in a positive light. A Russian respondent in a study by Markowitz (1991), for example, sees American friendship as the real friendship since it contains a “feeling of warmth without expectations and obligations, a sharing of spirit” (p. 645). Baumgarte (2013), comparing U.S. friendship patterns with those in France and South Korea describes Americans as independents (who show affection for their friends by making time for them, enjoying their company, and providing words of encouragement during difficult times), includers (who are outwardly friendly toward everyone, distinguishing between friends and acquaintances only in their thoughts and feelings), and idealists (who think of their closest friends in very idealized terms, and strive to always be upbeat and positive in their friendship interactions). This is in contrast elsewhere to interveners (who see it as their duty to take care of their friends, to instruct, advise, aid and protect them, even intervening in each other’s lives when appropriate), excluders (who make clear distinctions in their behaviors, emotions, and thinking between close friends and those who are simply acquaintances), and realists (who think of their closest friends very objectively, seeing both their good and not-so-good characteristics, and tends to express themselves in frank and straightforward ways).

In order to become comfortable in the new environment, it is beneficial for sojourners to consider the positive sides of unfamiliar friendship patterns. In this context, Hotta and Ting-Toomey (2013) call for identity adjustment and communication shifts; that is, “an awareness of the need to change—changing expectations, changing mindsets, changing communication styles, and becoming proactive change agents in their intercultural adjustment journey” (p. 556). Adjusting one’s identity and expectations concerning something as personal and deeply engrained as friendship is a difficult undertaking and remains one of the most problematic issues in intercultural-friendship research.

Culture-General Competencies and Attributes

Besides culture-specific factors, such as differences in communication and friendship patterns, intercultural-friendship formation is also influenced by culture-general competencies and personal attributes, including communication competence, intercultural competence, identity, and personality. Thus, there is broad agreement that a sojourner’s proficiency in the host language aids friendship formation and satisfaction (Gareis et al., 2011; Kudo & Simkin, 2003; Ward & Masgoret, 2004; Ying, 2002). Language proficiency helps alleviate anxiety felt during initial meetings with strangers, heightens the quality of self-disclosure (Kudo & Simkin, 2003), and increases the interest among host nationals to communicate with sojourners (Gareis, 2012a). On the other hand, Sias and colleagues (Sias et al., 2008) determined that low language proficiency does not necessarily have a detrimental effect on intercultural-friendship development. Language issues can be seen as “challenging, rather than forbidding” or as a “source of humor and play for the partners” (p. 10).

In addition, studies show an association of communication apprehension and communicative adaptability with friendship formation. For example, Williams and Johnson (2011) found that U.S. students with low levels of communication apprehension had more international friends; and a study by Gareis et al. (2011) showed that high communication adaptability scores in sojourners were correlated with a larger number of American friends and greater satisfaction with these friendships. Communicative adaptability (Duran, 1983) is a composite of aspects related to language proficiency, wit, personality (including social relaxation, supportiveness, and enjoyment of social engagement), and intercultural competence (including appropriate self-disclosure).

Personality and intercultural competence have also been investigated separately. Personality variables that have been linked to intercultural-friendship formation include sensation seeking (Morgan & Arasaratnam, 2003), open-mindedness (Williams & Johnson, 2011), empathy, social initiative (Woods et al., 2013), and extraversion (Ying, 2002). Likewise, many cognitive, affective, and behavioral intercultural competencies, including cultural self-awareness, culture-general and culture-specific knowledge, cognitive flexibility, motivation, open-mindedness, appreciation of difference, relationship building skills, listening skills, and empathy (Kim, 1991; Spitzberg & Changnon, 2009), are applicable to intercultural-friendship contexts.

In addition, the likelihood of intercultural-friendship formation is affected by the interactants’ degree of personal versus cultural identification. Both intra- and intercultural friendships provide affirmation and support for self-identities, but in intercultural friendships, the level of one’s identification with one’s culture plays an added role. Ting-Toomey’s identity validation model (1986) describes five types of identity (personal, cultural, marginal, ambivalent, and balanced). Personal identifiers are not clear about their cultural identity, which impedes exchanges about culture; and cultural identifiers are engaged with their own culture, lessening interest in other-cultural people. Likewise, marginal identifiers, who have few identities to validate, and ambivalent identifiers, who experience tensions between their identities, are less likely to embark in intercultural relationships. Balanced identifiers are most likely to interact interculturally because they have clear personal and cultural identities. This clarity bestows confidence in how they see themselves and others. In an update of this model, Ting-Toomey’s identity negotiation theory (2005) explains that individuals have multiple (cultural, ethnic, and personal) self-identities and experience dialectical tensions between identity security and vulnerability, inclusion and differentiation, predictability and unpredictability, connection and autonomy, and consistency or continuity and change. Depending on how these tensions are managed, individuals are either more or less likely to interact with members of other cultures. For example, too much security can lead to ethnocentrism and too much insecurity to anxiety in the face of intercultural contact. Ting-Toomey suggests identity-support strategies, such as effective listening and empathic inclusion behaviors to promote intergroup relationships.

Sojourner Motivation and Attitudes

Cultural differences as well as culture-general competencies and attributes not only affect the ease with which friendships are formed once contact has been established. Some of these factors can also affect the degree to which sojourners are motivated to reach out initially. According to Ting-Toomey’s identity validation model (1986), for example, a cultural identity can act as demotivation. Likewise, sojourners from group-oriented cultures in individualist host environments may feel more compelled to form conational networks than to develop friendships with the hosts. This is especially the case when there is an existing network of compatriots at the destination abroad (as is the case, for example, with East Asian students in Anglophone countries), when there is little peer support for venturing out to establish intercultural relationships (Paige, 1983), and when it is difficult to find connections with host nationals (Chen, 2006). Thus, there are studies reporting that Chinese students in New Zealand were less likely to want more host-national friends than other internationals (Ward & Masgoret, 2004), that Korean students in the United States had created an all-Korean infrastructure that allowed them to function comfortably within their conational network (Trice, 2007), and that Japanese students in Australia were not active in developing host-national friendships (Kudo & Simkin, 2003).

Even if international students don’t come from group-oriented cultures, however, their support networks often consist largely of conationals or other international students. The functional model by Bochner, McLeod, and Lin (1977) suggests that a student’s conational network affirms and expresses the culture of origin (largest network), the host-nationals fulfill an instrumental function by facilitating academic and professional aspirations, and the multinational network meets recreational needs (smallest network). The validity of the model has since been partially refuted. Hendrickson et al. (2011) found that international students did not have a higher ratio of conationals in their friendship networks; and Montgomery and McDowell (2009) reported that multinationals fulfill academic, social, and emotional needs. There is consensus, however, that conational and multinational networks play an important role.

One reason for this phenomenon is that international students’ first significant contacts on foreign soil are frequently the conationals and multinationals whom they meet during international student orientations at the destination college. Because the arriving students find themselves without a support network at the new location, these contacts fill a gap. In the course of the students’ sojourn, the common experience of living away from home, exploring the country, finding refuge with each other during culture shock, and facing the challenges of adaptation together often cement these relationships so that they endure throughout the sojourn and beyond (Brown, 2009; Montgomery & McDowell, 2009). If support needs are thus saturated, conational and multinational friendships can impede the students’ ability to develop host national friendships (Kim, 2001). This is especially the case for sojourners who arrive with spouses or families (Holmes, 2005; Lee, 2006). In a related matter, support needs may also be saturated due to the ready availability of online communication (via e-mail, social media, and video chats) with home-country friends and family. Findings are inconclusive, however, whether this contact affects the development of host-national relationships. Savicki (2010) found no relationship between the two; a student in a study by Hotta and Ting-Toomey (2013), however, reports that her fellow sojourners “close themselves off, relying on long established friendships with friends back in their homelands” (p. 560).

The desire to form host-national friendships is furthermore affected by the rationale for the students’ sojourn. Task-oriented students who have traveled abroad mostly for academic reasons and the goal of a better life upon returning home often remain anchored in the home culture and don’t seek out intercultural friendships (Roland, 1986). By contrast, cultural seekers, who arrive with the goal of meeting the people and learning about the culture of the host country, are more inclined to establish host-national relationships. In addition, low expectations can demotivate. When sojourns are short (as is increasingly the case with study-abroad stays (Pitts, 2009), or when the sojourn is expected to be difficult (Searle & Ward, 1990), sojourners may believe that efforts to establish friendships are futile.

Finally, some sojourners also hold ethnocentric attitudes toward host nationals or population groups within the host country. Ethnocentrism weakens the motivation to interact with people from other cultures and to form intercultural friendships (Arasaratnam & Banerjee, 2007). In particular, positive pre-arrival attitudes about forming relationships (Tanaka, Takai, Kohyama, Fujihara, & Minami, 1997) and a positive association of friendships with host nationals versus conationals (Ying, 2002), drive the desire to build social networks. In addition, racial attitudes might be at play. A report on East Asian students in the United States, for example, describes how sojourners had constructed racial hierarchies that placed Caucasians ahead of Latinos and African-Americans, which affected whom the Asian students befriended and dated (Ritter, 2013).

Host Environment

The focus in much of intercultural-friendship research is on the experiences of sojourners (in particular, international students). Host receptivity and host-environment infrastructure, however, also play a significant role in intercultural-friendship development. Host receptivity is a combination of the hosts’ attitudes, openness, generosity, goodwill, and support extended to strangers (Kim, 2001). When international students and other migrants feel welcome, accepted, and included, they are more motivated to befriend host nationals (Hotta & Ting-Toomey, 2013). In a study by Kudo and Simkin (2003), Japanese students in Australia stated that the hosts’ intercultural understanding and empathic communication (e.g., in form of communication accommodation by talking more slowly and adjusting vocabulary) was crucial for friendships to develop.

A perceived lack of host receptivity can have various reasons. These include a benign lack of motivation based on the absence of need. Long-term residents of a location often have established support networks and don’t feel compelled to reach out and enlarge these networks. Local students may also have commitments to other activities (including work and family) that inhibit the formation of new intercultural friendships. In a study in Ireland, Dunne (2009) furthermore found that domestic students constructed a difference between themselves and international students. Younger host students associated both international and older host students with maturity, viewing them both as having greater academic motivations, responsibilities, and authority. In the lecture halls, the younger host students sat separately from the “mature” students, thus inhibiting contact.

The failure of hosts to embrace sojourners can also be based on more deep-seated reasons. The Bogardus Social Distance Scale was first used in the early half of the 20th century to measure of the degree of intimacy that individuals would grant to members of particular racial or ethnic groups (e.g., respondents are asked whether they would marry someone from a culturally different group, befriend them, allow them into their neighborhoods, etc.; Bogardus, 1933). A study conducted in 2005 found that the pattern had not changed significantly in the preceding decades (Parrillo & Donoghue, 2005). Whites remained top-ranked, followed by Canadians and various European groups. Racial minorities ranked lower. Thus, out of the 30 groups studied, Chinese ranked 17th, Japanese 22nd, and Koreans 24th. Muslims and Arabs ranked 29th and 30th. On the positive side, the overall mean score improved over time, indicating a growing acceptance of other-cultural groups. It is not surprising then, that across the popular Anglophone destination countries, students from Anglophone and European countries tend to be embraced more readily than students from the rest of the world (Lee & Rice, 2007; Peacock & Harrison, 2009; Ward & Masgoret, 2004; Yeh & Inose, 2003). Reasons for this phenomenon include cultural similarity (and concomitant low social distance), greater English-language proficiency, and the relatively high status of Anglophone and European countries at the destinations (Anholt, n.d.). Sojourners from Anglophone and European countries generally also don’t look “foreign,” thus eliminating contact initiation barriers based on appearance.

When sojourners are not embraced into the fold, stereotypes may also be at play. Stereotypes don’t have to be negative to affect intercultural contact initiation adversely. For example, the stereotype of Asians as high-achieving can create a sense of threat in domestic students, who, fearing that Asians create competition and cause a loss of opportunities, develop negative attitudes toward them (Maddux, Galinsky, Cuddy, & Polifroni, 2008). Most frequently, however, stereotypes are negative and ensue at best in status hierarchies, at worst in hostility and discrimination, which all but preclude friendships. Ruble & Zhang (2013), for example, report that some stereotypes of Chinese in the United States paint them as oblivious, loud, intrusive, conceited, annoying, and unwilling to adapt. The situation is exacerbated when sojourners are seen banding together in conational or multinational groups. In a study in the United Kingdom, Peacock and Harrison (2009), for example, found that the prevailing attitude among domestic students was one of passive xenophobia. They viewed international students as culturally distant and self-excluding, with few points of reference on which interactions could be based.

It should be noted that host attitudes toward sojourners can vary according to urbanization and regional culture. Thus, international students appear to have fewer host-national friends and be less satisfied with their friendship in urban areas than in rural contexts (Gareis, 2012a; Ward & Masgoret, 2004). Additionally, regional differences can affect friendship numbers and satisfaction levels. In the United States, for example, Gareis (2012a) found that living in the South resulted in more intercultural friendships between sojourners and hosts than living in the Northeast.

Host receptivity is also affected by the number of international students in the host location. A study of Taiwanese students in the United States showed that having fewer Chinese students improved social association with Americans (Ying, 2002). The opposite is the case when international student density increases so that it reaches a critical mass. For one, sojourners with the same background then gain ethnic group strength, resulting in less pressure to adapt and learn new communication patterns, and potentially, more pressure to not venture beyond their own group (Kim, 2001). For the hosts, an increased number of international students—and concomitant changes to the neighborhoods and businesses that cater to these students—spurs fears of displacement of the local culture and can precipitate exclusion of the outgroup (Collins, 2006). Ward et al. (2009) determined that the tipping point lies at 11%; that is, an increase in proportional international student enrollment over 11% is associated with more negative attitudes toward these students. Much of the lack of host receptivity can be explained through the integrated threat theory (Stephan, Ybarra, Martinez, Schwarzwald, & Tur Kaspa, 1998). Four threats emanate from outgroups: symbolic threats based on value differences; realistic threats related to power, resources, and well-being of the ingroup; anxiety concerning social interaction with outgroup members; and feelings of threat arising from negative stereotypes of the outgroup. Ward et al. (2009) suggest that stereotypes are antecedents of perceived intergroup threat and that contact, by reducing intercultural anxiety, results in lower levels of perceived threat. Based on a meta-analysis of over 500 studies on Allport’s contact theory, Pettigrew and Tropp (2008) similarly conclude that initial intergroup anxiety must first be reduced through contact before increased empathy, perspective taking, and knowledge of the outgroup can contribute to prejudice reduction. For intercultural friendships to develop, it is therefore crucial first to foster contact between the culturally dissimilar individuals or groups.

In the context of international higher education, sojourners sometimes also face structural constraints that impede contact initiation with host nationals. These constraints include large class sizes, few structured opportunities to interact in and outside of the classroom (Yefanova, Baird, & Montgomery, 2015), lab or research groups that consist only of international students (Trice, 2007), and a heavy workload (Wright & Schartner, 2013). Heavy workloads also affect the amount of leisure time available for sojourners. According to the leisure constraints theory (Crawford & Godbey, 1987), structural constraints (e.g., not enough time), coupled with interpersonal constraints (e.g., language difficulties) and intrapersonal constraints (e.g., lack of motivation) can be powerful impediments to participating in leisure activities conducive to relationship development. Glass, Gómez, and Urzua (2014) confirm that constraints to recreation are negatively associated with host-national friendships, especially for non-European students, and within that group, most significantly for East and Southeast Asians. A welcoming climate for recreation and leisure are therefore important factors in social adaptation to the host environment.

Measures and Research Questions

In the context of higher education and efforts to internationalize, Lee and Rice (2007) call for institutions “to counter problems undermining the international experience” (p. 406). To address issues pertinent to friendship development, interactants should first be assisted in crossing the thresholds unique to intercultural contact. These thresholds include the abovementioned differences in communication and friendship patterns, communication competencies, personal attributes, motivations, attitudes, and the host environment. Some of these thresholds lend themselves to being lowered by educational measures for increasing intercultural communication skills. Foremost, intercultural training with culture-specific and culture-general learning outcomes can be provided to sensitize interactants to specific cultural differences in communication and friendship patterns and to familiarize them with general concepts of intercultural competence (e.g., the importance of motivation, skills, and knowledge) (Imahori & Lanigan, 1989). In particular, knowledge concerning different friendship patterns can reduce expectancy violations and encourage flexibility and openness vis-á-vis difference. Measures addressing communication competence in nonnative speakers can focus on spoken language and the informal communication skills needed for relationship development. And both native and nonnative speakers can benefit from skills needed for communication across language barriers (including attentive listening, speech accommodation, and interaction management). Intercultural training may also be able to address some hurdles related to personal attributes, motivations, and attitudes in both sojourners and hosts by expanding perspectives and highlighting the benefits of intercultural engagement.

Intercultural and communication training of sojourners and hosts is important, but without adequate infrastructures that promote the establishment of initial contact, the measures fall short. According to the propinquity effect (Homans, 1950), the more we see and interact with a person, the more likely we are to become friends. A number of measures for fostering propinquity have been suggested, including mixed orientations, classroom practices that promote intercultural interaction, integrated housing, buddy programs, extracurricular activities, and international clubs and events (e.g., Gareis et al., 2011; Hendrickson, 2015; Ritter, 2013; Rose-Redwood, 2010; Toyokawa & Toyokawa, 2002; Ward et al., 2009). Specific examples concerning Asian students include the mixing of Asian and domestic students in group projects in class and the involvement of Asian leaders in the organization of extracurricular events (so that the leaders’ social influence may propel other Asian students to participate) (Zhao, Kuh, & Carini, 2005). Empirical research on the effectiveness of measures (individually or in comparison), however, is sparse. Existing scholarship includes studies on shared housing (Hendrickson, 2015), a mixed bus excursion (Sakurai, McCall-Wolf, & Kashima, 2010), a mentoring program (Woods et al., 2013), and in-class group work (Renties, Hernández Nanclares, Jindal-Snape, & Alcott, 2012)—all with positive effects on intercultural-friendship development.

The study of the effectiveness of measures is one of the areas in need of expansion. Another area of scant research concerns the duration and long-term effects of intercultural friendships (including their impact on international collaboration and peace efforts). Somewhat related, the influence of online communication on the duration and quality of friendships between geographically distant interactants should be investigated.

Most research on intercultural friendship has focused thus far on international students (particularly in Anglophone countries) and has employed surveys or interviews for data collection. Scholarship should be expanded both in terms of context and methodology. With respect to international higher education, for example, more research should focus on the host-national perspective and on non-Anglophone countries (including the experience of Anglophone students abroad). In addition, contexts outside of education should be explored, including tourism, business, and permanent relocation due to voluntary or involuntary migration. The field would also benefit from an expansion in methodology. Thus, future research could be conducted via observations and experimental research, employ a critical lens, or use historical sources for an exploration of intercultural friendships over time. Likewise, although research has led to a taxonomy of factors influencing intercultural friendship, a model or theory of intercultural-friendship development is still outstanding.

Furthermore, scholarship is fragmentary concerning cross-cultural friendship patterns (i.e., the identification of intracultural friendship characteristics and comparison of friendship patterns across cultures). An expanded cross-cultural knowledge base would also help with one of the most confounding issues in intercultural-friendship research: the question of how to reconcile disparate ideals of friendship. In a study in the United States, for example, international students were more satisfied with the quality of their best and second-best conational as well as multinational friendships than with the quality of their best and second-best friendships with Americans (Gareis et al., 2011). Such a deficit in quality calls for a causal analysis and appropriate approaches to address the causes (Trice & Elliott, 1993). These approaches wait to be determined.

More than ever, people from different cultures meet and have the opportunities to form close relationships. To overcome thresholds along the way requires the motivation, skills, and knowledge of both sojourners and hosts. Being a key catalyst for optimal intergroup contact and prejudice reduction, intercultural friendship holds the promise not only for individual enrichment but as a means to grow international good will and build peace.

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